Old Time DC Enjoyed the Merry Month of May Near Crestwood
by David Swerdloff
Here are some May memories beginning in the years before Crestwood was developed. Several nearby attractions brought people up from the city and through the old estate. Most notable was a race track in operation for 50+ years until 1909. Fans would set out for the Brightwood Driving Park (or Piney Branch Trotting Course) from the end of 14th Street…head northwest on what was called 14th Street Road…cross a small wooden bridge over Piney Branch creek…then climb the hilly and shaded Piney Branch Road north to the track and one or two inns. Sometimes the entire route from 14th Street was called 14th Street Road.
May 2, 1879 – Washington Post:
On the summit of the range of high hills which lie north of Washington..is situated Brightwood park. The road by which it is reached…runs through a beautiful piece of rolling country. Yesterday, as on all racing days, this road was lined with almost every class of vehicle, from the elegant coupe to the country wagon, whose occupant is perfectly satisfied to have an occasional peep over the fence. Along this road lined with giant trees and tiny blue and yellow wild flowers, The Post’s sporting man was driven yesterday to the races…Everybody was there—at least everybody that was interested in horses.
At times, the track was reserved for baseball:
May 31, 1909 – Washington Post:
Brightwood trimmed Petworth [9 to 6] in the Suburban League yesterday in one of the most exciting contests of the season at the Brightwood driving park…First one team would take the lead, only to lose it in a few minutes. The winners were presented with a handsome silver loving cup by A. Davis after the game.
In 1894, the race course was the final camp site for “Coxey’s Army.” Unemployed Americans began this first March on Washington in Ohio, demanding federal action during a severe depression. Although the protest fizzled when it reached the Capitol, the marchers began the day parading through our neighborhood—again on Piney Branch Road. Downhill from the track, they passed the fenced area where Thomas Blagden was raising deer:
May 1, 1894 – Evening Star:
The march to the Capitol was begun…with flags flying, the white banners of peace fluttering from the oaken sticks of the marchers and the band playing something that seemed to be intended for a tune… By actual count at the gate there were 329 human beings in the parade…it wended down the dusty surface of the 14th street road…On down the hill, the procession passed with here and there a little group on the roadside… At the Argyle Deer Park a number of the animals stood by the fence and gazed curiously at the strange procession. Mr. Coxey remarked that they recognized an army of peace and were not afraid. From the time the procession struck the asphalt at 14th street, however, the crowds were continuous.
Among the observers that day was L. Frank Baum. Some scholars say Coxey’s Army helped inspire The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—making the path through Crestwood the yellow brick road, I suppose.
On May 1, 1899 – and just 300 yards south of the track – construction commenced on the Brightwood Reservoir. Its two basins remained in use from the end of 1900 until the Dalecarlia Reservoir went on line in 1927. The reservoir was dynamited in December 1937. A 1991 article for the Historical Society called the facility “the first major incursion into the park,” setting a precedent to give that section of the park its “most intrusive development.” The reservoir area became the site of community gatherings—especially after 16th Street was extended beyond in 1910—including a celebration of Shakespeare on the same site where the Shakespeare Free For All would be held decades later:
May 11, 1916 – Washington Post:
The tercentenary of Shakespeare was celebrated with pageant on the natural stage south of the Sixteenth street reservoir in Rock Creek park yesterday by students in English literature of McKinley, Business, Central and Western High Schools, with the assistance of the art, music and physical training department and the dramatic associations of several schools.
In 1950, that “natural stage” would become the Sesquicentennial Amphitheatre, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Washington as the Nation’s Capital. The next year the venue was dedicated to Carter. T. Barron:
May 26, 1951 – Washington Post:
President Truman last night dedicated the Carter Barron Amphitheater…highlighting a program saluting the late Carter T. Barron, civic leader and vice chairman of the National Capital Sesquicentennial Commission…The audience saw the first scene of “Faith of Our Fathers,” Paul Green’s revised pageant depicting the career of George Washington…The scene opened with the entrance of George and Martha Washington after their marriage…in a carriage drawn by two high-stepping bays. Indian peace dances, country dances, and general festivities greeted the young couple. The United States Marine Band played…Walter Pidgeon, screen actor, read a eulogy of Barron, and Kathryn Grayson sang.
Just south of Crestwood, the road into Mt. Pleasant once boasted an attraction constructed by a US pension examiner. Though he had lost an arm in the Civil War, Allen Hayward built a large tree house to live in. By 1885, he opened it to the public as Airy Castle park—a “Castle in the Trees” with a parlor, sitting room and space for music and dancing. For several years it was a popular spot, especially for those visiting Washington for Benjamin Harrison’s inauguration. Here are ads for May festivities at both Airy Castle and the race track: